Geneva, 5 November 2002 — The next meningitis outbreak in Africa could be less than two months away. Unless new funds are urgently provided, the vaccine and drugs which are needed to prevent deaths and control the epidemic will quite simply not be available.
The International Federation of the Red Cross, Médecins Sans Frontières, UNICEF and the World Health Organization are today appealing to donors for 10 million Euros which is urgently needed to rebuild a stockpile of vaccine and drugs. Without this revolving stock, countries hit by a meningitis outbreak will be left to deal with it alone - and thousands of people will certainly die unnecessarily as a result.
An emergency meeting between representatives of potential donor countries and of countries in Africa’s “meningitis belt” will be held Thursday in Geneva.
Meningitis is a killer disease which has its greatest impact on children. Fever, nausea and headache can progress rapidly to cause serious neurological damage, coma and death. Unless they are treated, half of those infected will die. Even with treatment, as many as 10% of patients do not survive. And those who survive can be left with serious mental damage or deafness as a result of their illness.
Meningitis outbreaks occur almost every year in the African meningitis belt, which stretches from Ethiopia in the east to Senegal in the west. In 2002 alone, there were at least 33 000 cases and 2 500 deaths. In the past ten years, there have been more than 700 000 cases.
This year, a new phenomenon also appeared which has made the task of dealing with outbreaks of meningitis much harder. A strain known as W135, which had previously only been responsible for sporadic cases in Africa, was identified as the main cause of an outbreak in Burkina Faso. Between February and June 2002, 12 000 people in Burkina Faso were infected and 1500 of them died, most of them as a result of the W135 strain.
Along with improved surveillance, treatment and diagnosis, the strategy to combat meningitis outbreaks in the African relies primarily on vaccination. However, the current vaccine protects only against the two most commonly occurring strains (A and C).
The only vaccine currently available which provides protection against W135 is a tetravalent vaccine, manufactured largely for sale in rich countries and those sending pilgrims to Saudi Arabia on the Hajj. The current price of this vaccine ranges from US$4 to US$50, depending on where it is sold. This is far beyond the reach of the affected countries in Africa.
Talks with manufacturers aimed at providing a stock of affordable vaccine against W135 are making good progress and a solution is now within reach. The goal is to have a trivalent vaccine at a price of US $1 per dose or below.
That is why we are appealing this week for urgent action by donors to fund a stock of vaccine, drugs and supplies to prevent thousands of unnecessary deaths from the disease in the African meningitis belt.